How to preserve Iranian nuclear deal?
Die Zeit published an article Vielleicht verrennt sich der Iran by Adnan Tabatabai on the Iranian nuclear problem and opportunities for solving the situation. He is the co-founder and director of the CARPO research center in Bonn. As an Iran expert, he advises EU institutions, federal ministries and political foundations on Iranian affairs. Tabatabai is a lecturer at the University of Duesseldorf and an author of the book "Morning in Iran" (Edition Körber, Oct. 2016).
The Europeans are clear about their goal: avoid a military escalation in the dispute with Iran. Fears of this could not be mitigated by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who joined his EU counterparts on Monday in Brussels. The British warning of a "war by accident" is serious - the confrontation between the US and Iran can quickly spiral out of control. Meanwhile, the government in Tehran hopes to use the threat of gradually retreating from the nuclear agreement to persuade its remaining partners to comply with the agreement's terms. After all, Iran wants what the Europeans want: to save the deal, which the United States exited a year ago.
First, the technical aspects of the issue will be explained. The pace and nature of the measures announced so far by Tehran makes it clear that Iran really wants to stick to the agreement. Because these are all reversible and irrelevant to the question of when Iran could spontaneously construct nuclear weapons (breakout capability).
With immediate effect, Teheran will no longer recognize the upper limits for the storage of low-enriched uranium (maximum 300 kilograms) and heavy water (maximum 130 tons) laid down in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). For the sake of the agreement Iran was allowed to export its surpluses to Russia and Oman. Since May 3rd, however, these transactions have been banned under the renewed US sanction regime. The leadership in Tehran deliberately annulled this part of the nuclear agreement, which the United States could not be in compliance with because of Washington's new sanctions.
Iranians are disillusioned
Iran further threatened to enrich uranium to a higher degree than the approved 3.67% (unclear whether 5 or 20%) and to reconstruct the Arak heavy water reactor. The latter, according to the JCPOA, was to be modified to a light water reactor with support of the agreement's signatories. So far, this has not happened, and Iran could now move away from it. As an ultimate escalation, aside from exiting the JCPOA - which would immediately render the agreement null and void - Tehran could threaten to opt out of the NPT, reject the Additional Protocol, and / or expel the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from the country.
Decisions of such great relevance are decided via consensual decision in the Supreme National Security Council. In addition to the president, who is the constitutional chairman of this body, members of the cabinet, the military, the judiciary and the parliament are represented there. Each decision of the Council represents a cross-factional consensus decision of the leadership elite of the Islamic Republic. As with the decision on the Nuclear Agreement itself, the gradual phase-out approach now outlined is a decision that will be shared among key decision-makers.
The euphoria over the nuclear agreement has long since given way to a great disillusionment among Iran's population. The hoped-for economic upswing did not just fail to materialize but the economic situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past two years. The Iranians are aware that the current economic misery is not solely caused by the US sanctions regime. Its own leadership is equally responsible for this due to the mismanagement and the rampant corruption. Therefore, the now announced strategy of a gradual exit has also to be seen as a domestic signal. An assertion that the government still has some degree of control over the unfolding situation.
Throughout a year of austerity, Iran has demonstrated its patience and commitment to the deal despite a lack of economic dividends, probably in the hope that Europe, Russia and China would be able to compensate for the US exit. However, especially with regards to Europe, the Iranians misunderstand that the political motivation of European governments to obtain the agreement is not a guarantee that European private companies will follow the same course. For European managers, the threatened US fines are too great a risk to attempt re-launching trade with Iran. These profit oriented actors seek steadfast assurances.
Russia and China see the deadlock as a win-win situation. A continuation of the JCPOA would upgrade Iran as a strategic partner in the Middle East, while a disintegration of the agreement would maximize Iran's dependence on both of these Eurasian powers. To put it bluntly, Europe is unable to act and China and Russia are unwilling to act. On the other hand, there is a widespread impression that Iran has no other choice but to abide by the agreement.
The Iranian leadership wants to break this vicious circle. It hopes to use a controlled escalation, a kind of roadmap for the gradual withdrawal from the JCPOA, to show more emphatically what is at stake. This approach is clearly not aimed at a modified "less for less" deal that cuts down on both Iranian and the other contracting parties' obligations. At the moment Iran is counting on a "less for 'all or nothing" approach.
What the leadership in Tehran underestimates among the Europeans, however, is the deep-seated skepticism towards the Islamic Republic in almost all matters outside the JCPOA-framework. Iran's flawless compliance with the agreement, despite adverse conditions, has not changed this. Europeans have often taken the view that Iran follows an exceptionally assertive foreign and security policy: as if Iran was the only power that pursues its own interests with non-state militias and underpins its defense and deterrence policy with a ballistic missile program. However, Iran has so far not been successful in countering this impression in the numerous Iranian-European dialogue formats.
Iran will defend itself
Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that Berlin, Paris and London will now find the appropriate solutions that have not been found in the past twelve months since the US exit. In defined terms, Iran demands that it will be made possible for the country to continue its oil sales, have its transport ensured and to carry out financial transactions freely.
Only serious security issues should be strong enough to give Europe a jolt. The development of the JCPOA crisis is already increasing the danger of an escalation between Iran and the US. The fear of an increasing destabilization of the region that has recently attracted a large refugee movement to Europe is reasonable - assuming that Iran will eventually have to defend itself through its regional allies and militias or ballistic missiles, in case the current escalation spiral continues. Even the danger of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is quite real.
All this threatens Europe much more directly than the US. Such security-oriented thinking could motivate intensified European efforts to preserve the nuclear agreement. Otherwise, the slow but sure end of this deal, which was negotiated over almost twelve years, will be certain.